Tongans fled to higher ground on Saturday as a major volcanic explosion sent tsunami waves slamming onto the South Pacific island, prompting tsunami warnings as far as the United States West Coast, according to the Japan Times.
Dramatic photographs from orbit captured the moment the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted, sending a mushroom of smoke and ash into the air and sending a tremor through the surrounding waters.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia, a tsunami wave of 1.2 metres was observed in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital.
Mere Taufa, a local resident, said she was in her house getting ready for supper when the undersea volcano erupted, flooding her home.
“It was huge; the ground shook, and our house shook.” It came in fits and starts. Taufa told the Stuff news website, “My younger brother feared bombs were exploding nearby.”
Minutes later, she said, water flooded their home, and she saw a neighbouring house’s wall collapse.
“We just realised it was a tsunami right away.” Water was flowing into our house.
“You could just hear screams all around you, people pleading for help, pleading for everyone to get to higher ground.”
King Tupou VI of Tonga was reportedly evacuated from the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa and brought by police convoy to a villa far from the coast.
The volcano erupted for at least eight minutes, sending plumes of gas, ash, and smoke hundreds of kilometres into the sky.
Residents in coastal areas were advised to seek higher ground after the eruption, which occurred just hours after the island’s previous tsunami warning was cancelled.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano is located 65 kilometres north of the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa on an uninhabited island.
According to officials in Suva City, where photographs shared on social media showed massive waves crashing on the coast, the latest eruption was so powerful that it was heard as “strong thunder sounds” more than 800 kilometres (500 miles) away.
Tsunami warnings were issued for American Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Chile, and Australia, where authorities feared tsunami waves could hit a span of coastline, including Sydney.
“Get out of the water and walk away from the near water’s edge,” people in the surrounding New South Wales state were warned.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for the entire US West Coast, from the bottom of California to the point of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, and tsunami waves caused “minimal flooding” in Hawaii.
“Get off the beach and out of ports and marinas in these places,” the National Weather Service of the United States urged, predicting 2-foot waves, significant rip currents, and coastal flooding.
Residents in Fiji have been advised to cover water collection tanks in the event of corrosive rain.
“Keep away from areas of warning, which are low-lying coastal areas, reefs, and beaches,” advised Victorina Kioa of the Tonga Public Service Commission on Friday.
Taaniela Kula, the chief of Tonga Geological Services, asked residents to stay inside, wear a mask outside, and cover rainwater reservoirs and rainwater collecting equipment.